Georgia Supreme Court overturns prescription drug conviction

In criminal prosecutions for most crimes, the government must prove that the defendant intended to do the actions that constituted the crime. Broadly defined, intent means that the defendant knew what he was doing. Cases involving drug charges are no exception to this rule, and prosecutors need to prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt. However, intent in drug cases is not exactly cut and dry, especially in cases involving prescription drugs.

Recently, the Georgia Supreme Court addressed what type of intent is needed to convict a person for unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

The case began nearly four years ago when a Georgia man was arrested after he mistakenly went to the wrong house, banged on the door and asked a neighbor to let him in. The neighbor said the man was intoxicated and loud, and she called the police.

When the police showed up, they used a taser on him when he did not immediately comply with their commands to show them his hands. They then searched the man’s pockets and found three tablets of Zolpidem Tartrate, also known as the prescription drug Ambien. As a result, he was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance as well as possession of drugs not in their original container.

At trial, the defendant tried to present the defense that he did not know the pills were Zolpidem Tartrate and that he believed he had an over-the-counter medication. The trial court refused to allow him to present this defense, and the defendant was convicted. The defendant appealed his conviction on the grounds that he should have been able to present his defense. At the court of appeals, the man lost again.

In a victory for people charged with crimes that they did not intend to commit, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously overruled the court of appeals and sided with the defendant last week. The Supreme Court found that the government needed to show that the man intended to possess a drug and knew what the drug was. The court found that possessing Zolpidem Tartrate when a person believes it to be an over-the-counter medication is not a crime because the intent to commit a crime is not present.

Source: Duvall v. State, S10G2079, (Ga. July 11, 2011)